The Fiery Cross

Author: P Hana

Page 82

   

Beardsley shouted to know who it was, but no answer came; only another knock at the door. Fanny had crept to the edge of the loft, to see his red face glaring up at her. The knock sounded for a third time. His tongue was too thick with drink to speak coherently; he only growled in his throat and held up a finger in warning to her, then turned and staggered toward the door. He wrenched it open, looked out—and screamed.

“I have never heard thuch a thound,” she said, very softly. “Never.”

Beardsley turned and ran, tripping over a stool and sprawling full-length, scrabbling to his feet, stumbling to the foot of the ladder and scrambling up it, missing rungs and clawing for purchase, crying out and shouting.

“He kept thouting to me to help him, help him.” Her voice held an odd note; perhaps only astonishment that such a man should have called to her for help—but with a disquieting note that I thought betrayed a deep and secret pleasure in the memory.

Beardsley had reached the top of the ladder, but could not take the final step into the loft. Instead, his face had gone suddenly from red to white, his eyes rolled back, and then he fell senseless onto his face on the boards, his legs dangling absurdly from the edge of the loft.

“I could not get him down; it wath all I could do to pull him up into the loft.” She sighed. “And the retht . . . you know.”

“Not quite.” Jamie spoke from the dark near my shoulder, making me jump. Hiram grunted indignantly, shaken awake.

“How the hell long have you been there?” I demanded.

“Long enough.” He moved to my side and knelt beside me, a hand on my arm. “And what was it at the door, then?” he asked Mrs. Beardsley. His voice held no more than light interest, but his hand was tight on my arm. A slight shudder went over me. What, indeed.

“Nothing,” she said simply. “There wath no one there at all, that I could thee. But—you can thee the rowan tree from that door, and there wath a half-moon rithing.”

There was a marked period of silence at this. Finally, Jamie rubbed a hand hard over his face, sighed, and got to his feet.

“Aye. Well. I’ve found a spot where we can shelter for the night. Help me wi’ the goat, Sassenach.”

We were on hilly ground, spiked with rocky outcrops and small tangles of sweet shrub and greenbrier, making the footing between the trees so uncertain in the dark that I fell twice, catching myself only by luck before breaking my neck. It would have been difficult going in broad daylight; by night, it was nearly impossible. Fortunately, it was no more than a short distance to the spot Jamie had found.

This was a sort of shallow gash in the side of a crumbling clay bank, overhung with a tattered grapevine and thatched with matted grasses. At one time, there had been a stream here, and the water had carved away a good-sized chunk of earth from the bank, leaving an overhanging shelf. Something had diverted the flow of water some years ago, though, and the rounded stones of what had been the streambed were scattered and half-sunk in mossy soil; one rolled under my foot and I fell to one knee, striking it painfully on another of the beastly stones.

“All right, Sassenach?” Jamie heard my rude exclamation and stopped, turning toward me. He stood on the hillside just above me, Hiram on his shoulders. From below, silhouetted against the sky, he looked grotesque and rather frightening; a tall, horned figure with hunched and monstrous shoulders.

“Fine,” I said, rather breathless. “Just here, is it?”

“Aye. Help me . . . will ye?” He sounded a lot more breathless than I did. He sank carefully to his knees, and I hurried to help him lower Hiram to the ground. Jamie stayed kneeling, one hand on the ground to brace himself.

“I hope it won’t be too hard to find the trail in the morning,” I said, watching him anxiously. His head was bent with exhaustion, air rattling wetly in his chest with each breath. I wanted him in a place with fire and food, as fast as possible.

He shook his head, and coughed, clearing his throat.

“I ken where it is,” he said, and coughed again. “It’s only—” The coughing shook him hard; I could see his shoulders braced against it. When he stopped, I put a hand gently on his back, and could feel a fine, constant tremor running through him; not a chill, just the trembling of muscles forced beyond the limits of their strength.

“I canna go any further, Claire,” he said softly, as though ashamed of the admission. “I’m done.”

“Lie down,” I said, just as softly. “I’ll see to things.”

There was a certain amount of bustle and confusion, but within a half hour or so, everyone was more or less settled, the horses hobbled, and a small fire going.

I knelt to check my chief patient, who was sitting on his chest, splinted leg stuck out in front. Hiram, with his ladies safely gathered behind him in the shelter of the bank, emitted a belligerent “Meh!” and threatened me with his horns.

“Ungrateful sod,” I said, pulling back.

Jamie laughed, then broke off to cough, his shoulders shaking with the spasm. He was curled at one side of the depression in the bank, head pillowed on his folded coat.

“And as for you,” I said, eyeing him, “I wasn’t joking about that goose grease. Open your cloak, lift your shirt, and do it now.”

He narrowed his eyes at me, and shot a quick glance in Mrs. Beardsley’s direction. I hid a smile at his modesty, but gave Mrs. Beardsley the small kettle from my saddlebag and sent her off to fetch water and more firewood, then dug out the gourd of mentholated ointment.

Jamie’s appearance alarmed me slightly, now that I had a good look at him. He was pale and white-lipped, red-rimmed round the nostrils, and his eyes were bruised with fatigue. He looked very sick, and sounded worse, the breath wheezing in his chest with each respiration.

“Well, I suppose if Hiram wouldn’t die in front of his nannies, you won’t die in front of me, either,” I said dubiously, scooping out a thumbful of the fragrant grease.

“I am not dying in the least degree,” he said, rather crossly. “I’m only a wee bit tired. I shall be entirely myself in the morn—oh, Christ, I hate this!”

His chest was quite warm, but I thought he wasn’t fevered; it was hard to tell, my own fingers being very cold.

He jerked, made a high-pitched “eee” noise, and tried to squirm away. I seized him firmly by the neck, put a knee in his belly, and proceeded to have my way with him, all protests notwithstanding. At length, he gave up struggling and submitted, only giggling intermittently, sneezing, and uttering an occasional small yelp when I reached a particularly ticklish spot. The goats found it all very entertaining.

In a few minutes, I had him well-greased and gasping on the ground, the skin of his chest and throat red from rubbing and shiny with grease, a strong aroma of peppermint and camphor in the air. I patted a thick flannel into place on his chest, pulled down his shirt, drew the folds of his cloak around him, and tucked a blanket up snugly under his chin.

“Now, then,” I said with satisfaction, wiping my hands on a cloth. “As soon as I have hot water, we’ll have a nice cup of horehound tea.”

He opened one eye suspiciously.

“We will?”

“Well, you will. I’d rather drink hot horse piss, myself.”

“So would I.”

“Too bad; it hasn’t any medicinal effects that I know of.”

He groaned and shut the eye. He breathed heavily for a moment, sounding like a diseased bellows. Then he raised his head a few inches, opening his eyes.

“Is yon woman back yet?”

“No, I imagine it will take her a little time to find the stream in the dark.” I hesitated. “Did you . . . hear everything she was telling me?”

He shook his head.

“Not all—but enough. Mary Ann and that?”

“Yes, that.”

He grunted.

“Did ye believe her, Sassenach?”

I didn’t reply immediately, but took my time in cleaning the goose grease out from under my fingernails.

“I did at the time,” I finally said. “Just now—I’m not sure.”

He grunted again, this time with approval.

“I shouldna think she’s dangerous,” he said. “But keep your wee knife about ye, Sassenach—and dinna turn your back on her. We’ll take watch and watch about; wake me in an hour.”

He shut his eyes, coughed, and without further ado, fell fast asleep.

CLOUDS WERE BEGINNING to drift across the moon, and a cold wind stirred the grass on the bank above us.

“Wake him in an hour,” I muttered, shifting myself in an effort to achieve some minimal level of comfort on the rocky ground. “Ha, bloody ha.” I leaned over and hoisted Jamie’s head into my lap. He groaned slightly, but didn’t twitch.

“Sniffles,” I said accusingly to him. “Ha!”

I wriggled my shoulders and leaned back, finding some support against the sloping wall of our shelter. Despite Jamie’s warning, it seemed unnecessary to keep an eye on Mrs. Beardsley; she had obligingly built up the fire, then curled up among the goats and—being merely flesh and blood, and therefore exhausted by the day’s events—had gone immediately to sleep. I could hear her on the far side of the fire, snoring peacefully among the assorted wheezings and grunts of her companions.

“And what do you think you are, anyway?” I demanded of the heavy head resting on my thigh. “Vulcanized rubber?” My fingers touched his hair, quite without intent, and smoothed it gently. One corner of his mouth lifted suddenly, in a smile of startling sweetness.

It was gone as quickly as it had come, and I stared at him in astonishment. No, he was sound asleep; his breath came hoarse but even, and the long parti-colored lashes rested dark against his cheeks. Very softly, I stroked his head again.

Sure enough; the smile flickered like the touch of a flame, and disappeared. He sighed, very deeply, bent his neck to nuzzle closer, then relaxed completely, his body going limp.

“Oh, Christ, Jamie,” I said softly, and felt tears sting my eyes.

It had been years since I’d seen him smile in his sleep like that. Not since the early days of our marriage, in fact—at Lallybroch.

He’d always do it as a wee lad, his sister Jenny had told me then. I think it means he’s happy.

My fingers curled into the soft, thick hair at the nape of his neck, feeling the solid curve of his skull, the warm scalp and the hair-thin line of the ancient scar across it.

“Me, too,” I whispered to him.

30

SPAWN OF SATAN

MRS. MACLEOD and her two children had gone to stay with Evan Lindsay’s wife, and with the leaving of the MacLeod brothers with the militia, plus Geordie Chisholm and his two eldest sons, the congestion in the big house was eased substantially. Not nearly enough, though, Brianna reflected, considering that Mrs. Chisholm remained.

The problem was not Mrs. Chisholm as such; the problem was Mrs. Chisholm’s five younger children, all boys, and referred to collectively—by Mrs. Bug—as “the spawn of Satan.” Mrs. Chisholm, perhaps understandably, objected to this terminology. While the other inhabitants of the house were less forthright than Mrs. Bug in stating their opinions, there was a remarkable unanimity among them. Three-year-old twin boys would have that effect, Brianna thought, eyeing Jemmy with some trepidation as she envisioned the future.

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